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Gillette’s close shave with purpose-led advertising

Like art, journalism and the film industry, advertising has always had a dialectic role, reflecting current culture back to society while also forming and shaping where it heads next. Today, as capitalism struggles to mature, one positive step forward is that brands have become self-aware about their influence on culture, identity and stereotypes; indeed, in Gillette Brand Director, Pankaj Bhalla, own words, “it's time we acknowledge that brands, like ours, play a role in influencing culture”.

As western society crumbles our heroic, self-sacrificing, multinational corporations are coming to our aid. Magnanimously they offer us the tools of our salvation, and for a very reasonable price too. Certainly, they would like us to see them that way, as moral bastions striving for a better tomorrow. What’s really going on is something far less cynical than my petulant opening however. Like art, journalism and the film industry, advertising has always had a dialectic role, reflecting current culture back to society while also forming and shaping where it heads next. Today, as capitalism struggles to mature, one positive step forward is that brands have become self-aware about their influence on culture, identity and stereotypes; indeed, in Gillette Brand Director, Pankaj Bhalla, own words, “it’s time we acknowledge that brands, like ours, play a role in influencing culture”. What we are seeing from the ads I’ll discuss below (Nike, This Girl Can, Axe/Lynx and Pepsi) are the early attempts to act consciously with this cultural power.

First things first, the Gillette ad is not a good ad. You may think that it is a good message, but the way it was delivered has insulted millions of their customers – bad result. Being divisive might be a bold strategy for a brand with less than 20% market share (such as Nike), but it’s a foolish mistake for a brand with 50% – 70% (US, UK) of market share like Gillette – why divide a market that you dominate? What’s more, I suspect Gillette didn’t have a clue that this was going to be so poorly received and have since gone into damage limitation – indeed, many Youtube commentators have reported having their ‘dislikes’ for the ad removed multiple times, despite which, the current stats are 383k likes to 790k dislikes.

 

What did they get wrong?

There’s nothing necessarily wrong with the Gillette strategy. Rehabilitate your old strap-line ‘the best a man can get’ and make it relevant for today, ‘the best a man can be’. Cool, lots of potential there. Focus the ad on areas where men try to be their best; family, friends, attracting women; makes sense, plenty to explore. And then, make it relevant by understanding the hot topics of debate like #MeToo and so-called Toxic Masculinity; text book.

Where they went wrong however, is that they swapped an understanding of hot topics and debates for genuine insight into their customers attitudes and beliefs. It’s the only explanation for the perspective from which the ad is shot. Do we follow the journey of an individual striving to be the best he can be in the modern world, getting knocked back and then overcoming obstacles by doing the right thing? No. Instead we get a sort of mini-history, political message that shows all masculinity as corrupt until the #MeToo movement came and saved it. Fast forward to today and only “some” men are behaving decently while the rest presumably run around thumping their chests while groping strangers.

Secondly, and connected to the first mistake, the tone is all wrong. Gillette presume to tell people what to do. I think this is the key dividing line between people who like the ad and people who don’t. Those who like it think it’s an important message that needs to be said, but they don’t think the message is for them. They think it is for those ‘other’ men out there who need to be told how to behave properly. ‘Otherising’ a group in this way is the cornerstone of discrimination, it’s the same type of thinking necessary for racism, putting people into a ‘basked of deplorables’ to be despised and talked down to.

On the other hand, you have the people who don’t like the ad. From the comments it’s clear that these people thought the ad’s message was for them, not someone else. From this perspective, the tone is blatantly patronising and insulting, telling its audience that they’re toxic, too weak to stand up for those in need and probably a lousy father too. To be clear, most men don’t seem to have a problem with the behaviours themselves, very few men today think it’s ok to just grab women by the arse, and who on earth could be against stopping bullying? While we’re on the subject however, there is one exception: many men have said that they think breaking up young boys who are rough housing, like those shown in the BBQ scene, would be bad for their development and a confusing thing to do if the play fight had not got out of hand.

It all feels like a missed opportunity to me. Gillette could have done something so much classier here, if only they’d learnt from those who’ve got it right…

 

Gillette vs Axe/Lynx: Diversity matters

Fernando Desouches who heads up ‘New Macho’ for BBD Perfect Storm was the mastermind behind this fantastic re-positioning for Axe/Lynx. He managed to re-position the brand away from its ‘lad masculinity’ – which saw hot babes come running toward even the geekiest man who sprayed on some deodorant – to a position that celebrated the diversity of modern men. That ad compassionately explored an identity in transition at a moment of re-definition. By contrast, and in his own words on the Gillette ad, “There is no demonstration of any understanding that not all men are the same. Yet this is a message that brands can convey. So, let’s build a new aspiration for men – one where men are not defined by performing what they think is expected, but by being true to their honest values and beliefs, and understanding that others might be different”.

 

Gillette vs This Girl Can: Build people up

The director of the Gillette ad, Kim Gehrig, was also behind the multi award winning and hugely successful campaign, This Girl Can for Sports England. Clearly, she can make powerful and inspiring spots that can drive new behaviour, getting 1.6m women into sport. So why did Gehrig get it right for women and wrong for men?

All the women shown in This Girl Can push themselves to be the best they can be at the sport they’ve chosen for themselves. They don’t put other women down, they don’t tell other women how to behave, they are not in the gym/pool/boxing ring because society tells them to be, but because they want to be.

Gehrig took something women felt awkward about, sweating in public, and turned it into a badge of honour, a sign of your inner will power and outer strength. For Gillette she directed a spot which told men that most of them were not behaving properly and if they didn’t sort it out their children will go on to do the same. However true you think this is, it’s not an inspiring way to create change.

 

Gillette vs Nike: Authenticity

This was such a radical change of tone for Gillette. I think that is part of the shock of the whole thing: where did it come from all of a sudden? For Nike, Dream Crazy with Colin Kaepernick felt like a natural extension of what Nike have always been about. It had the same bold tone of their previous messages, ‘find your greatness’, ‘choose go’ and ‘Just do it’. As Dan Hojnik, strategy director at The Specialist Works, said here the Gillette ad “straddles the “dangerous” line between authentically supporting a cause and exploiting one for profit” – though he allowed Gillette “the benefit of the doubt.” I’m less forgiving than Dan and would say that the whole thing feels like a calculated punt for short term attention with a lack of authentic concern for the men who buy their products.

 

Gillette vs Pepsi: It could have been worse

Perhaps we should cut them some slack? At least it wasn’t as bad as the Pepsi ad. It was at least trying to take on a significant issue.

All this reminds me of the early clumsy attempts at green advertising a decade ago with the likes of Shell proclaiming “that there is no away” because they recycle some waste heat to warm Dutch greenhouse while gas flaring to their heart’s content in Nigeria. There’s a rush to do something purposeful. And just because some are getting it wrong doesn’t mean that others won’t get it right.

 

So has the ad been a total waste of time?

For Gillette… and I’m going to be bold enough to call it early… yes, this has been a waste of time. They will lose more customers than they gain, and they will have to invest more money to salvage their clumsy, pointless mistake.

For the rest of us, perhaps they’ve done us a favour. When you explore the comments, tweets and the for and against response articles with an open mind, you can start to see the emergence of an important and timely debate. Both sides accuse the other of performing an ‘act’. One side is ‘acting’ all woke and caring just to try and impress women with their sensitivity, while the other is ‘acting’ all macho and tough just to try and feel like a man. At the same time those who ‘pretend’ to care about equality, don’t seem care about the struggles men face and those who ‘pretend’ to be tough are getting all upset about a poxy little advert. With all this pretence, the question of “who the real men are” lies heavy in the air.

There’s no doubt, then, that Gillette have re-ignited a debate about modern masculinity, one that is needed in my opinion, but I have many doubts that they have the knowledge, insight or emotional intelligence to genuinely contribute to it in a constructive way.

 

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